In Sydney Review of Books earlier this month, Ivor Indyk lamented the state of literary prizes. The ‘middlebrow’, he claims, is taking over culture (read: the highbrow). The ‘middlebrow’, defined originally as those people who hope eventually to get used to the stuff they ought to like, is a contemptuous term now used to mean those who are narrow in their cultural interests and engagement. (Even the OED states this is ‘colloquial and frequently derogatory’.) Literary prizes are, he claims, are the ‘last bastion’ for ‘literary recognition that is withheld by the marketplace’ – that enervated forum of the middlingly-browed.
I suppose he means that prizes should be awarded on the basis of merit (he excludes ‘appeal’ from the definition of merit), but it sounds as though he thinks this is the same as some kind of predictor of enduring future worth – that the novels to which these glittering prizes are pinned should be known already as the canonical works of the future. The hubris of attempting to divine the lasting impact of a work of literature is one that has been pursued, fruitlessly, since the publishing industry began.
There are a couple of problems with Indyk’s approach – I won’t go so far as to call it an argument, since it reads like the curmudgeonly complaint of old men everywhere since (at least) Ancient Rome. Of course in rallying against Indyk’s opinions I may well be committing GK Chesterton’s error of being wrong about why he is wrong, but that can be for another writer to argue.
What prizes are for, and what they should be for, is recognising the significance of a work at a particular cultural moment. They are deeply contextual, having none of that halo of historical distance that seems to make canonical works glow with self-evident glory. Some lucky few novels written now, prize winners or no, will prove to have enduring significance, articulating to a distant present so perfectly what was happening now, or where that later now’s genesis turned out to be, that they will be rightly regarded as works of prescient genius. But it is only from a position in the ever-moving present that we can judge the past’s apparent self-evidence. Hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty. We don’t yet know what will have proven to be important in the future; that’s why it’s called future imperfect in grammar.
Using the words of others, Indyk expressed his dissatisfaction with those fans of Terry Pratchett who mourned his recent passing. Yet is it surprising that an author who went out of his way to communicate with his readership was mourned by that same readership? Indyk overlooked the fact that Pratchett’s fans mourned his passing because they knew his life. His personality and his struggle with illness, just as much as his satirical fantasies about contemporary culture and politics, drew people to him and his works.
Indyk seems to think that the marketplace is a swelling crowd of populist barbarians – possibly an image that would be appreciated by Pratchett – but not (to his mind) comprised of the ‘true’ readers of literature. Quality and appeal are not mutually exclusive. In attempting to distinguish the ‘marketplace’ from cultural appreciation, Indyk wrests from the readers of books the power to be considered and conscious of what they read. He seems to think that the people who read Pratchett are different from the people who read Marquez, but he has no evidence of this. Certainly I have been an avid consumer of each, and my bookshelves groan under the weight of everything from Shakespeare, Stead, and Steinbeck to Garner (Alan, not Helen, although also Helen), Grisham, and Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl). This is what belies his snobbery, which is everywhere apparent in this column.
Readers of books are not always buried nose-deep in the ‘great works’ or trashy airport purchases. Likewise, just because someone is a festival director, Indyk seems to think that this should disqualify them from having a serious opinion if asked to judge a prize. On the contrary, it indicates a passionate involvement with contemporary authors and readers, and an awareness of the ebb and flow of contemporary consciousness that creeps its way into the books we end up producing – which has almost nothing to do with prizes.
Indyk claims that the bellwether of a judge’s or a panel’s quality is their reaction to poetry. This is an interesting idea, and one that he could have explored more. If a judge or a panel can argue and become passionate about the most condensed textual expression we can create, then their understanding is indeed nuanced and engaged. Resolution amongst a judging panel for ‘excellence in writing’ should certainly engage with a broad range of genres, and those genres should rightly be represented in the shortlisted nominations. However, Indyk paints himself into a corner whereby nobody is fit to judge a prize – not the hoi polloi, not the ivory tower, not the festivalists, and not the grim, thin-lipped politicians.
I am not yet willing to wring my hands. As Neil Gaiman said, ‘make good art’. Obliterating prizes for the sake of fellowships mutes entirely the cultural fanfare around prize winners, and I don’t think that these occasions should be diminished. Why does Indyk think that the current amount of money spent on prizes is a set figure? There is absolutely no reason why the plutocratic Brandis could not fund both prizes and a new fellowship programs, with matched philanthropic support, for different genres. Prizes are poor predictors of enduring appeal or later significance, but they are exceptional boosts to the creative process of hundreds of writers.
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